George MacDonald

George MacDonald wrote novels with good characters that are interesting. That, you know, is not so easy to achieve. MacDonald was held in high esteem back in the 19th century. Not so much today, but he is a better writer than I think he’s given credit for. Not only for his good characters, but also for his deft handling of descriptions and situations and many other things.

I’m doing Donal Grant on the recommendation of a friend here. He made the remark that he finds these books by MacDonald cleansing. I remember reading Phantastes with what Lewis said in mind: that he was thereby exposed to pure goodness (something like that). As I read Donal Grant, I sense there is a great mountain freshness of joy and contentment in what MacDonald presents, and this gladness of purity is, I think, the thing of which Lewis speaks.

MacDonald’s books are still being read and still being kept in print. He exerts a fascination still. I spoke with three people at church recently who have read MacDonald. In two of the conversations his anti-Calvinist views came up: he poses a dilemma. One of the persons I talked to did her MA thesis on MacDonald and said when she came to his views on the atonement she had to shut the book she was reading. So much does MacDonald draw us with a vision that is so good we do not even want to believe any wrong of him.

And he is good. Even people who will wonder if he’s a Christian will cleave to his books for good reasons, if with some misgivings. I myself have found his clear mountain air bracing. I enjoy the challenge of figuring out where exactly he’s coming from. I haven’t got a whole lot yet from him, but I have figured out that the abridged versions distort his theology somewhat. Probably not enough to avoid the problem, but enough to aggravate it and push clarity further away.

I think there are two basic things we love. One is the doctrine of original innocence, which is not entirely wrong. Yes, in Adam we all sinned, but it stands to reason that we are still haunted by the memory of that original innocence before the fall. It calls us to return—and we are made to want it, if only in the sense that we realize our loss. Death is the return to it, and MacDonald’s full of the atmosphere of good death.

Nobody taps into this original innocence like the tradition of Traherne, Wordsworth and here George MacDonald. The tradition of original innocence of which they found childhood more than representative is overdone; we recoil. But if it is only representative of what haunts not our personal but our racial memory, then I think it works. I think that’s why it wins us and why we do more than recoil. We don’t have to follow them as far as they go.

The second thing is that though the earth is cursed, it was first blessed. Besides the blessing, everything originally was made good. That goodness cannot be absolutely effaced as long as there’s something. And, actually, there’s much of it. Calvinists speak of common grace. I myself think it is a common goodness which is in the world due to how it has been made. This goodness isn’t simply good quality product, but is derived from its Creator. That is why we have a sense of it in myths of natural divinities, nature goddesses, etc. There is something suggesting divinity in the work of God just as there is Bachness in the work of Bach and Boschness in the work of Bosch. Something in the deep rooted goodness of creation suggests beyond it someone better.

But there is more. MacDonald was tainted by something that seems like old fashioned theological modernism. He was influenced by things he got from German romanticism (a good place to get ideas nonetheless). He affirmed that Christ’s death was a display of the love of God. But he denied it was anything else, and that’s the problem. What MacDonald had was not all right, but that is not to say it was all wrong.

Here’s what I think: his restricted view allowed him to see something that had been obstructed for him before—goodness and gladness not only allowed but also better explained. In the world that George MacDonald shows us we see something we desire: a benevolence working in all things the good of everybody absolutely. This is not altogether true, but it does hold for God’s people, for believers. The Apostle Paul says that. But what MacDonald presents is the world of believers only, and that’s not the real world, not the world the Apostle speaks of. Still, it is a real enough part of the world at present.

Does Calvinism have its grimmer, joyless corners? It did for MacDonald—and who will say that this effect was unique to him? There are terrible, relentless Calvinists who do not make of the mysteries of our religion wonders but instead make of them heavy awful things. And there are certainly heavy and awful things; but that is not exclusively what God is, yet that is what some relentless, terrible Calvinists seem to make of him and his ways. George MacDonald, it seems to me, reacted to that and went to the other extreme. Unfortunately, he refused to imagine God’s holy wrath in terms of justice. He seems to have imagined that God’s wrath is really God’s relentless and mastering love. He did not believe in eternal punishment except in theory because he believed that God’s will to bring all to repentance would not ultimately be thwarted. That is not too far from being Calvinism, except that it includes far more people than Calvinism will allow. (That probably makes him the only person ever who could say with integrity he was neither a Calvinist nor an Arminian; and yes, it does appear he said that.)

But he strongly believed in repentance, and he did not believe any would be saved unless he repented and was converted. With MacDonald’s view, conversion may not be so urgent—if you don’t repent now, you will eventually—but it is nevertheless necessary.

I think that’s what can save George MacDonald. There is a turning from idols to God, from sin in repentance to faith in the forgiveness Christ offers. He does not explain adequately how that atonement works, but is it necessary to understand how it works in order to believe that it works? The tougher question is: what did MacDonald’s deliberate refusal mean? Atonement without justice? It may be wishful thinking on my part, but I do think at that point inconsistency may have saved him: can he have said that God is not just? He can have implied it, but I don’t think he meant to. Would he say God punishes sin? Yes. With hell? Yes. It’s just he’d say God always does it with remedial rather than punitive motives. That is, but isn’t just. It has to do with his view of God’s skill which is pretty high (i.e. omnipotence). It does leave the atonement sadly sagging.

It would be easier if MacDonald had not been willing to suffer for his convictions. He suffered like a Calvinist, convinced in God’s sovereign disposal of all things for the good of his elect. And he suffered for his inadequate views of the atonement . . . here’s the thing: for the sake of principle. It was compromise and comfort, or conviction and reproach. He chose the latter. Money, pleasure and power cannot have moved him to take his stand. At least we ought to say he was a deep one. I doubt he suffered for his view of the atonement alone–I think it is more of a package deal, if that’s any mitigation.

MacDonald shows us something like the lighted side of that great pillar of fire by night, not the Egyptian side (and that’s an important part of it). His view is of the world for the believer in that light, and the light shining through it is the light of Christ on his people. His characters are also luminous with that light, and we love them because they show us Christ’s goodness and mercy and tender severity with his own.

What is the fascination in the depths of all depths? What is it in the deepest researches of all things that makes all of creation interesting? Creation’s Creator, that’s what. And in the case of George MacDonald’s characters, not their creator’s character, though that’s part of it, but beyond that it is the view of Christ we get. It is not what Christ did for us, much as it means for our conversion, that serves to guide us and point us in the way of righteousness, it is what he showed us in the loveliness of his obedience. I mean that in the sense that we cannot emulate our Savior in his once-for-all death, but we can in the example of his life and character. That, I think, is what George MacDonald helps us with.

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Feel free to point out any gaps I didn’t anticipate. I’d welcome it.

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9 thoughts on “George MacDonald

  1. Early American Universalism was indeed characterized by a “Calvinistic” bent. (See James Relly and John Murray, mid-late 1700s.) By combining the notion that the atonement functions as retributive justice with the notion that the atonement is universal, the logical conclusion is that salvation is universal. Bring in alongside this the notions that what God intends to do cannot be thwarted, and that all of God’s attributes are bound up in love (or benevolence as they used to say back in the day) and you have something that sounds very similar to what you describe in MacDonald.

  2. It’s exasperating that we who hold to truths rarely perceive that we hold them in comical disequilibrium.

    Surely we need a man to judge us.

    And a God.

    But certainly a man.

  3. You could read more on MacDonald here: Talbott, Thomas. “The Just Mercy of God: Universal Salvation in George MacDonald (1824-1905).” In All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann, edited by Gregory MacDonald, 219–46. Eugene, Or.: Cascade Books, 2011. From it I took a few notes for possible use in the dissertation. He revolted at Edwards’s soteriology, if that’s what the expression, “I turn with loathing,” means. Mark

  4. The questions you’ve raised on MacDonald’s view of atonement are deeply interesting to me.

    I think that, in your disappointment with some of his theology, you’ve not taken into account MacDonald’s really profound statement that Christ is our atonement. The atonement is not lost or left deflated in his view. Our Atonement is Christ himself, and not some arrangement Christ has made on our behalf.

    Does this statement bear meaning for you, or does it seem like a run-around? I think that when I believed in substitutionary atonement, it might have seemed like a run-around. I’m not finally settled in my beliefs on the subject (and the related subject of eternal destiny) but I am more sympathetic to MacDonald’s view, which closely resembles St. Isaac of Syria’s, than just about any other view. His reasoning reminds me of some things I’ve read in Athanasius, though MacDonald goes a lot farther with it than Athanasius does.

  5. I don’t see it. I am sure that view is best which includes rather than excludes more. It is a great thing, not a small thing. But that is to argue for substitution–plus everything else. I don’t think MacDonald would have thought his view was narrow, but I think it is. If you don’t include justice, don’t you have less?

  6. Two things.

    1.) “…that view is best which includes rather than excludes more.”

    A.) Substitution is part of the “everything” that must be accounted for in our theory, only if substitution is required by the situation. (Otherwise it becomes extraneous – including it is then not a completeness but a superfluity.) MacDonald rejects that substitution is needed because he rejects the idea that retributive punishment is required in the first place.For him, such a requirement would limit God’s ability to forgive.

    (Athanasius on the other hand does describe a sort of substitution, but it seems to be, not a substituionary sacrifice to appease God’s wrath for every sin, but a substitutionary death that “uses up” the effect of the curse and renders it inert (“in the day thou eatest of it thou shalt surely die.”) The Ancient of Days enters the human race and his seniority makes him its firstborn, carrying the whole race within him as Adam did. He dies; no more curse. The differences are more subtle but still significant.

    B.) I think you could use the same argument to say, that view is greater which includes forgiveness, plus everything else. Obviously, if you have a God whose justice requires him to punish, there is no actual forgiveness of the debt – just the debt being settled one way or another.

    2.) “If you don’t include justice…” MacDonald says that he doesn’t believe in what we commonly think of as justice. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe in any kind of justice at all. Here, he and Athanasius seem to agree. Justice as they both consider it is God getting back what he created, in the condition he created it in – it is Satan not winning. Justice is God setting things right (rather than “declaring” them right.) MacDonald believed that our human idea of justice (you wronged me, therefore you need to suffer) is a holdover from paganism and is both irreligious and illogical. I think this clearly implies that he does believe in justice but he defines it differently. God’s justice is different than man’s justice, he says. Which is quite plausible.

    His central logical argument is this: Every attribute of God must be defined in such a way that every other attribute of God is included in its definition, otherwise God is not simple. So, justice must be defined as merciful and mercy must be defined as just. How’s that for plenary?

    I imagine this view of things is less attractive if you have no deep misgivings about the retributive justice model. I have had, from childhood.

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